Are food loyalty cards worth it?

WineLoyalty food cards like Tastecard and the Gourmet Society offer money off at restaurants. But are they actually worth paying for?

I went out for lunch in a lovely country pub last week but while the food and company was good I had to fend off our somewhat over eager waitress who seemed intent on getting me to sign up for their loyalty deal.
The pub in question was one in the Chef & Brewer chain and signing up would mean 20% off next time round. But with so many pubs and restaurants jumping on the loyalty card bandwagon, are they all they're cracked up to be, particularly if you're paying for the privilege?

Fee-paying discount cards
These are several 'membership' style schemes out there which mean paying an annual fee in return for discount at up to around 6,000 restaurants across the country.

Tastecard costs £79.95 and includes chains like Zizzi, La Tasca, Bella Italia, Prezzo and Strada as well as individual eateries and you can get a free one-month trial. Discounts mean either 50% off your 'group' food bill or 'two for one' deals aimed at couples.

The Gourmet Society card is £10 cheaper at £69.95 with chains like Prezzo, Café Rouge, Harry Ramsden's and Loch Fyne members of the scheme, as well as local outlets. There are three levels of discount here: 'two for one' on food, 25% off food and drink or 50% off food. You can search for restaurants and their particular deal online.

And it's a similar story with Hi-Life Diners Club with 'two for one' deals in return for £69.95 a year. Once again it's a mix of chains like Ask and Prezzo along with one-off establishments.

So are they worth forking out for?
Whether it's worth the investment depends on where you want to eat. If you prefer the chains, think twice as 'two for one' vouchers for many of the chains like Pizza Express and Strada can usually be downloaded free from vouchercode websites. Be sure to read Frugal Food every week for a full round up.

Tesco shoppers can swap Clubcard rewards for up to four times their value to cover eating out in places like Café Rouge, Strada, and Bella Italia; which are among the names included with the fee paying cards.

And lots of restaurants have their own deals if you sign up online. A Gourmet Society membership means 25% off at Loch Fyne fish restaurants but register for free through the restaurant's own website and you can bag a £10 voucher and 50% off a bottle of wine. Prezzo, a chain offering 'two for one' deals with both Tastecard and Hi-Life offers a similar deal through its own site with two mains for £12.95 every day which, based on menu prices, effectively means a second meal free.

However if you prefer one off independent eateries or want to try some posh places without breaking the bank then these cards can be a bonus. However, it's still possible to find dining deals with up to 50% off booking through sites like 5pm and Toptable which cover a range of upmarket restaurants and bistros nationwide!

Watch for small print exclusions
If you eat out a lot don't assume that fee-paying cards will guarantee a regular discount at your favourite restaurant. According to the Gourmet Society, restaurants can restrict the number of 'discounted' visits. This could mean a maximum of just two or three visits a year.

With the Hi-Life Diners card any repeat visits are down to the restaurant's discretion, so you may only get to eat there once with discount.

Most deals only apply to food, not drinks, and restaurant terms usually state you must pre-book and flag up your discount card. This means if you present your card after you've eaten you run the risk of any discount being refused as you didn't abide by the terms and conditions.

Personally I never produce vouchers or discount cards ahead of the final bill as I always worry 'discount diners' may pay for any discount with smaller portions. I've never been refused a discount doing this, but whether you play by the rules or take a chance is up to you.

When can you go?
More small print here as popular times are excluded. That's usually bank holidays, Christmas, New Year and Valentine's Day along with Fridays and Saturdays so check first.

And you can't get 'double discount'. So if you're going for a lunchtime 'deal' or set menu, you may forfeit the right to use your discount card as in most cases cards can only be used against full price menus.

Free cards
There's plenty of free cards out there that offer a better option, including the Beefeater Grill Reward card where you get points on your purchases which can then be exchanged for food, though you'll need to spend £100 to get £5 off.

If you travel by train one card worth making room for in your purse or wallet is the Bite card. It's easy to apply online and valid for up to 20% off food and drink at train stations ,so handy for those late night 'burger on the train home' moments or when you want to grab a morning coffee to kick start your daily commute.

Outlets include Burger King, Millie's Cookies, Upper Crust and the Pasty Shop at all 'mainline' stations. But remember this card's for train stations only; not for the same name outlets in shopping centres.

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